First Solo

Every pilot remembers the first time she or he is turned loose to fly alone. No other moment can match it. Here is mine.

So, what was it like?

It was a surprise, of course. It's supposed to be. The day before 11 April 1987, we finished up all the pre-solo paperwork, so I knew it was coming soon. I saw the cirrostratus across the moon that night, and wondered whether I'd get my chance before the bad weather headed our way. I was really hoping, but I couldn't tell for sure. I think the fact that I decided not to buy film, and to leave my camera at home probably turned the trick. The morning was a bit hazy, 15 knots of wind out of 070. We went up for circuits. (Yeah, circuits. In America, they call it a "pattern". It's the "circuit". Or "touch and goes".) Some of them were troublesome; we kept gaining on people in front of us, and had to overshoot several times. A few times I was far too far out on downwind, and came in pretty low (not very smart over the water). Seems that you don't *have* to cut the power before turning base; you can drop it back on base it that's appropriate. I eventually stopped edging up on everybody else's circuits...I think, in fact, there wasn't anybody else in the circuit by the time we ended the hour.

On a couple of approaches, I was futzing around with a perfectly acceptable power setting for no good reason; on another I just didn't keep flaring, and waited far too late to drop the power back. But the last two landings, on 06 with a real steady cross-wing, set down beautifully. Crosswind from the right, hold the right wing down just so, smooth flare, nose rising to the horizon and *staying there*, right on the centreline. "That's my girl," Jeff smiles. I break into a wide grin.

(Jeff's first language was Greek, and he is a fluent Francophone native of Montreal. His praise was sparing, and his syntax used to confuse me: i.e. "She's too high, the nose." A very smart guy, though; a graduate of McGill University, a mechanical engineer with an aerospace specialty, who, at 24, desperately wanted to be a civilian test pilot, or work for the airlines. He very quickly got on with a regional carrier. I must have been the only student he'd ever had that really got excited by ground briefings taught right from First Principles of Physics, instead of spending most of the briefing wondering why we couldn't be in the plane.)

We take the plane in, and discuss the business about the move into slow flight on base. It feels so strange, flying circuits now; while we talk some, it's much less on these last few flights. I've been flying as though he wasn't really there, more and more absorbed, trying to take in all the things that a good pilot takes care of. I turn her around to park, go through the shutdown, and wait for Jeff to get out to push the plane back onto the edge of the apron. He gets out, smiles warmly and with mischief, and says, "Want to take her up by yourself?"

I am genuinely surprised; I figured that was it for the day. I say, no, incredulous, and feeling just a bit unready. I push from my mind all the things I've done in the last hour that were less than perfect, the strong power adjustments, the overshoots, and manage to find my medical/student pilot permit. Jeff signs it, gives it back to me. "Remember, the plane will feel lighter this time. Just go up for one circuit, and come in. And tell the tower it's your first solo. OK?" Now I am totally absorbed. I must have done the startup checks, but I don't entirely remember doing them. Ground control does not remark on my asking taxi clearance for " solo circuit", and they clear me to 08 via Alfa and Bravo. I turn right, towards Charlie/Delta. "Juliet Mike, you're going the wrong way." (Canadian aircraft have no numbers, just letters, starting with C-F___ or C-G___. Now you can also ask for the moral equivalent of Vanity Plates, but that's very new.)

This does not faze me. I am concentrating too hard to be embarassed. I try to decide whether I need to do runup, if I've just come down, and decide that of course I do. I position myself into the wind, but way too far into the middle of the taxiway and back from the hold line, as the two aircraft in front of me depart. I turn around again, and head for the little corner, just where I wanted to be in the first place, do the runup, get cleared into position and then for takeoff. I am off in no time. Must have used all of 300 feet for that takeoff, if that.

I am prepared for Quebec Juliet Mike to leap skyward, but she just lifts herself from that runway with a grace that reminds me of the sunlight flooding the cockpit. It isn't so much the lightness of the aircraft I notice (Jeff is only 5'6"/150); it's the flood of sunlight in the aircraft where that increasingly silent person has been for so many weeks. I try not to look over to the right seat. I know he's not there. I don't need to look to believe it. It just like every other circuit. Really.

Climb to 750 feet, right turn; tower has just called QJM into position for takeoff. I tell him I'm on crosswind; he pauses and tells me that wasn't for me. Edge of the island ahead, turn onto downwind just as I level out at 1250...and pause for just an instant to look down 1000 feet, perfectly parallel to 4500 feet of runway at that gorgeous airport with splendid green grass set in brilliant blue water and the bluest of skies...and snap back!

Downwind checks, woman. Get with it. Primer locked, Master on, mags on both, mixture rich, flaps set, fuel on, check belt, wiggle brake pedals. Time to turn. I decide to square up with 08. It's my favourite runway. Nobody is ahead of me in the circuit; several people are waiting to take off. I pull back the power, nose up, turn base. "Quebec Juliet Mike, do you want 06 or 08?" "Quebec Juliet Mike, I'd like 08." "Quebec Juliet Mike cleared to land on 08." "Quebec Juliet Mike cleared to land on 08," I reply.

I turn to final approach and suffer a moment's confusion: too far from the numbers; BE SURE -- which one is 08? There's nobody on one of them, and three people waiting for the other; why wouldn't he have told me to go 06 and not keep those nice people waiting? Because you * asked * for 08, that's why. Yes, the nice big one, your favourite, that *is* 08. Coming down, down, VASIS just right, all the way down. The plane about to take off is out of the way, and I'm coming in beautifully, cut the power and flare right on the numbers.

We float smoothly, steadily, QJM and I, cowling firmly touching the horizon and not wavering anywhere. Will we ever land, I wonder idly, not caring. I'm not changing a thing; it'a all perfect, and QJM will bring me home when she decides to. That every man should have so gentle a mistress! I can scarcely feel the touchdown...and not for lack of trying to. It was *That Good*.

I didn't feel scared while I was up there, not apprehensive, not unprepared. I was pure concentration. I was one with QJM, the sky, the wind, the sun. There wasn't a person in a plane up there. There was a single living, humming breathing, whirring, purring creature. And it was over. Check time down: 10 minutes. 0.4 showing on the Hobbs. Jeff walked out to meet me. "Congratulations!" and I gave him a hug. It was nice. "Nice," you say? "Nice"? The most memorable moment of a pilot's career, and you call it "nice"? Yeah, I wondered about that. Tower didn't congratulate me, though some of the guys at Central knew from the grin that I'd had my moment.

My flying time finished just before the 10 a.m. ground school, so I landed, did the log books, and headed straight for class. (The place where I learned to fly, nobody ripped up your shirt-tail and pinned it on the wall, or threw you into the lake to mark the occasion. The one ceremonial observance was unavailable at that moment...but more on that later.)

Every time a new student goes solo, I think it brings a bit of that back to all the guys who spend their days teaching and flying. I wondered whether the fact that I didn't have to be truly pried off the ceiling meant that I didn't really enjoy it. I decided, no, not at all. The really fine things that I do in my life, the ones that I'm relly proud of, are just things I do. And I have the quiet joy that rises up from inside, slowly, slowly, and eventually fills all my senses. These are very private moments, ones in which I know assurance within my own self. They are very much solo celebrations in every sense. This is not to say that they can't be shared, but that I don't need anyone to make a fuss or throw a party when I've done something that good, that right. The fact that I did it, it was my best, and I know it was good, is the primary celebration.

When ground school was over for the day, I finally hopped back on my bicycle, bought a tape of the instrumental version of St.Elmo's Fire (in retrospect, because that's the music the Canadian Forces Snowbirds used for their routines), opened all the windows in my apartment, cranked it up loud on the stereo, sat with sunlight streaming into the place, and just cried buckets for joy.

The funniest part of the whole solo was that Central Airways used to keep a Polaroid camera on hand to capture that big solo smile. When Jeff turned the plane into the sun for the picture, and I had gracefully flung the MA-1 over one shoulder and glowed... ...there was not a film to be had in all of Toronto Island. I was tickled. See, I'd even dressed for the occasion. I figure my Dad was probably more disappointed than anyone. I don't need it on film. The important parts will long outlast the best chemicals Polaroid has to offer.

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